As Mark Martin climbed out of his winning race car in Victory Lane on Saturday afternoon, another, smaller celebration was unfolding along pit road at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Danica Patrick exchanged jubilant hugs and handclaps with other drivers and members of her crew, and then turned and waved at the crowd that had witnessed her breakthrough finish in the Nationwide Series.
Pairing fuel strategy with an improving ability to race side-by-side in stock cars, Patrick rallied from two laps down to finish fourth, her best result since the IndyCar regular began her part-time foray into NASCAR last year. Patrick got one lap back via a wave-around, made up another thanks to the free pass, and had enough fuel to run to the end as several other contenders were forced to stop on pit road.
"To be honest, I think we're making some real progress," said Patrick, whose previous best Nationwide finish was 14th, at Daytona two weeks ago. "We make progress every weekend, but it's just a matter of, are you on the lead lap and in position to take advantage by the end of the race?"
Saturday, she was. In the process, she recorded the best finish by a female driver ever in a NASCAR national series, topping the fifth-place result turned in by Sara Christian at Heidelburg Raceway in Pittsburgh in 1949.
"I think it's huge," said Patrick's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr. "I think it's going to help her out tremendously. I think Daytona was a really big step for her. Last week at Phoenix, we know short-track racing is kind of one of her issues. The mile and-a-halfs, I told her by the end of [last] year she was doing great at that, and it was just a matter of putting a whole race weekend together."
Patrick still had her issues at Las Vegas, including a mediocre qualifying effort and a spin on the opening day of Nationwide practice on Thursday. But her improvement as a stock-car racer was evident Saturday, particularly in the way she spent several patient laps dueling with Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne. Patrick used some lapped traffic to get by on the low side, then picked off Nationwide regular Brian Scott for the 10th position, and the off-cycle pit stops she had made earlier in the event carried her from there.
"It's nice to race with those guys," Patrick said. "They teach me. They really teach me how I need to run. [Bayne] has been having lots of good experience with Sprint Cup and with Nationwide, and he's been doing really well. He taught me how to prevent somebody from getting by too easily. He was right there tight on my right side, and I'm telling you, man, I was loose as all getup next to him. But that's how you learn how to race."
Patrick's No. 7 team entered the weekend harboring secret hopes of a top-10 finish, based on the lap times she turned at Las Vegas last season and the progress she made on intermediate tracks toward the end of the year. "I didn't want to say that to the media, because then you'd expect me to finish in the top 10," she said. They'll gladly take the top-five instead.
"It's very easy for her to run in the top 15 in this series," Eury said, "and we thought -- hey, Vegas, we ran really good out there last year, we ought to be able to run top 10. Today we had a ninth-place car and fuel strategy kind of gave us a top five, so it's a bonus."
Now Patrick has a week to celebrate, and to think about her next start, at a very different kind of track -- half-mile, high-banked Bristol Motor Speedway, a facility at which she'll be competing for the first time.
"I don't know if it's good to have a top-five going into Bristol," she joked. "But hey, just like any weekend, you'll take a good result. I don't want this to create any sort of false expectations that I'm going to go out and go for a top-five or a top-10 at Bristol. My goal at Bristol is to finish and not be more than 10 laps down, I think, given the size of it. When I tell people that Bristol is my next track, they're like, 'Oh. Oh.' So they're kind of putting me in kind of a scared position."